The Sustainable Development Goals of the UN (SDGs) are a hot topic. The 17 goals serve as a blueprint to achieve a more sustainable future and address global challenges from hunger to poverty to climate change. Volunteer World has over 1800 volunteer programs and each of them focuses on at least one of these SDGs. We asked the Volunteer World team about their personal favorites among the Sustainable Development Goals.
We started with Volunteer World co-founder Christian Wenzel. That he’s well-traveled and passionate about sustainability, comes as no surprise. Christian explores different parts of the world every year. We sat down over coffee to discuss his recent trip to Borneo and how he encountered different aspects of the Sustainable Development Goals during his trip.
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With rising greenhouse gas emissions, climate change is accelerating and its impacts are felt around the globe. Goal 13 aims to limit climate change and at the same time help communities adapt to its devastating effects.
During his travels in Borneo, Christian was confronted with two major challenges to this goal:
Christian arrived in Borneo at the height of the Indonesian forest fires in September. Despite staying on the Malaysian side of Borneo the whole island was covered in thick haze . Forest fires are often caused by so-called slash-and-burn practices, where land is cleared for agricultural purposes.
These fires can cause a lot of harm to local wildlife, such as orangutans but also for our climate. Forests serve as carbon sinks, meaning they store CO2 that human activities are releasing into the atmosphere. Burning these forests, therefore, contributes to the climate crisis.
While the response to this challenge may seem obvious at first glance (don’t cut down forests!), it’s not quite as simple. For locals struggling to feed their families, agriculture is a lifeline. With many worries in the present, it’s hard to focus on long-term impacts.
Besides being an integral part of our lives and making many aspects of it easier, there are serious concerns about the effects of plastic. The production process of 1kg of plastic produces about 6kg of CO2. Although CO2 in the atmosphere is already off the charts, one of the greatest challenges is what to do with plastic after it has served its purpose.
Tonnes of plastic waste ends up in landfills which takes years to break down. Plastic isn’t compostable, or digestible, so when it breaks down, it’s still plastic, just smaller. Plastic seeps into the soil contaminating the groundwater or ends up in the stomach of an unknowing animal.
Some countries get rid of plastic waste through incineration. This process creates energy but also leaks harmful chemicals into the atmosphere. When it’s not buried or burned, plastic makes its way into our waterways ending up in the ocean. This is why plastic can be found in 90% of the world’s sea birds, 50% of sea turtles, and we are ingesting tiny bits of plastic through the fish and shellfish we eat.
When traveling around Borneo, one thing that struck Christian was the amount of plastic trash everywhere. Idyllic spots were spoiled with massive piles of garbage. Despite regular cleanups by the local tourism industry, each day a new pile of plastic trash appeared.
One of the main reasons for this is inadequate waste collection and recycling systems. While trash in developed countries is mostly collected from one’s house on a regular basis, people in developing countries and remote communities have to deal with waste disposal by themselves. When waste was mainly organic that didn’t pose a problem, but with the introduction of plastic packaging, the issue of disposal arose.
What does all of this have to do with our climate? Over 99% of plastic is made from chemicals sourced from fossil fuels like coal, gas, or oil. When burning plastic waste, which is the case in many developing countries that don’t have industrial-scale recycling, CO2 is released into the atmosphere.
If we want to protect nature and limit climate change, we need to fundamentally change the way we produce and use plastics.
Christian’s tip for SDG 13:
As a tourist, you play an important role. Lead by example and avoid single-use plastics during your travels. Bring reusable straws for your beach cocktails, steel water bottles for your hikes, and a tote bag for any of your shopping trips. That way, your stay doesn’t contribute to plastics pollution and you raise awareness among locals who may follow your example.
The world’s oceans drive global systems making it habitable for life on earth. It plays an important role in counterbalancing the effects of climate change by absorbing 30% of carbon dioxide produced by humans.
There’s a 26% rise in ocean acidification since the beginning of the industrial revolution. Ocean acidification affects a wide range of ocean species. Shell dissolution decreases the ability of certain species to build and maintain shells while other species, like clownfish, lose their ability to locate suitable habitats. Some species can no longer distinguish between their species and predators. The reason for this is the decreased pH of ocean water can impair the sense of smell of certain ocean species.
The increase in ocean acidification is caused by marine pollution which mainly comes from land sources. There’s an alarming average of 13,000 pieces of plastic per sq km of ocean.
The SDGs aim to manage and protect marine and coastal systems from pollution and the impact of ocean acidification.
Located off the coast of Sabah in the Sulawesi Sea, Sipadan is a 400-acre oceanic island with live corals on top of an undersea volcano rising 600 meters from the sea bed.
Sipadan is home to over 3000 species of fish and hundreds of multi-colored coral species. Sharks, green or hawksbill turtles, jackfish barracuda, and bump head parrotfish are some of the many species you will encounter on your Sipadan dive.
To minimize the tourism footprint on the island, all resorts were closed in 2005. To visit the island, you need a diving permit. 176 permits are issued daily through dive centers and all visitors need to stay at one of the surrounding islands, Mabul, Kapalai, Mataking, or Pom Pom.
Borneo had been on Christian’s bucket list for a long time. The island’s stunning wildlife was one of the main reasons, but as passionate diver, he looked forward to Sipadan in particular. Sipadan is a well-kept secret for most but in the diving community it’s known as one of the top 10 diving spots in the world. It’s an untouched biodiversity hotspot.
This wasn’t always the case however, until 2005, Sipadan welcomed tourists to the resorts scattered along the coast of the island. As the pollution and plastic littering increased, something needed to be done if they wanted to maintain this paradise of ocean life. Luckily, they made the right decision and closed all the resorts on the island and limited daily dives to 176 visits a day. All divers are also supervised by a diving organization during their visit to the island.
During his dives, Christian’s expectations were exceeded: he found an unspoiled underwater paradise with hundreds of sea turtles, lots of sharks, and bustling coral gardens. Sipadan is a powerful example of how marine protection can benefit biodiversity, but also support a sustainable local tourism industry.
Finding an ethical, sustainable dive operator was very important for Christian. Scuba Junkies on Mabul Island was just the right fit. The organization is extremely conscious of its environmental footprint and combines a sustainable diving program with eco-friendly lodging and local development initiatives. Scuba Junkies raises awareness about important issues among divers, organizes beach and ocean clean-ups, works on coral restoration, teaches locals skills to provide additional income, and much more.
Christian’s tip for SDG 14:
Do the research before you travel. Be conscious of your impact on the environment and book accommodation and tours that protect the environment. Tourism can spoil the most wonderful places, but when done in a sustainable way, it can support local livelihoods and conserve nature at the same time.
Human life depends on land as much as it does on the oceans. 80% of our diet relies on plants and agriculture is one of our most important resources. With 30% of the earth’s surface covered in forests, it’s home to millions of species and a source of clean air and water. They also absorb over 2,5 billion metric tonnes of CO2.
With CO2 in the atmosphere rising, we need forests to counteract the effects of climate change. Unfortunately, 13 million ha of forest are lost annually.
Although 15% of the forests in the world are protected, 7000 animal species are still poached for illegal trade. Wild trafficking not only has a huge effect on the biodiversity of forests but also encourages insecurity, conflict, and corruption.
SDG 15 aims to reduce the loss of natural habitats to support global food security, protect biodiversity, mitigate the effects of climate change, and provide peace and security.
Borneo is among the last two places in the world to see a very special forest dweller: orangutans. Due to their shrinking natural habitat and the illegal pet trade, orangutans are a critically endangered species. The palm oil industry is cutting down more and more forest land for plantations, leaving orangutans and other species extremely vulnerable.
His interest to see this furry fellow in real life brought Christian to the Sepilok conservation center. Sepilok has 43 sq km of land protecting orangutans, sun bears, and pygmy elephants. The center also has a famous nursery that raises orphaned or abandoned baby orangutans. Orangutans stay in the nursery for 8-10 years before they’re released back into the wild.
Conservation centers like the one in Sepilok and protected forests are the only way orangutans can still survive today.
The Last Rhino
The looming death of Iman, the last Malaysian Rhino, cast a big shadow on Christian’s Borneo trip. Despite several attempts to save the Malaysian rhino population, they all failed. Christian said after he heard the news, he lost all hope of reestablishing this rhino population in the future as it just gets harder from now on. He’s disappointed the world didn’t find a way to prevent the last Malaysian rhino from becoming extinct.
Christian’s tip for SDG 15:
It’s not only the local government’s responsibility to protect local wildlife and the environment. Wildlife and environmental protection initiatives need to become a global responsibility. Despite supporting eco-tourism and donating to conservation efforts, you can also make an impact as a consumer: say no to wildlife trade and report any illegal activities to authorities.
SDGs and Awareness
While Christian’s Borneo trip may sound like a very nature-focused trip, he was quick to point out his experiences with the local culture. Although he’s enchanted by nature and wildlife, connecting with locals is what brings meaning to his travels.
During his trip, Christian went on a 3-day excursion with a Bornean jungle tribe. The tribe gave Christian a warm welcome, took him on a beautiful hike, and offered him the most delicious food. “I was humbled by the generosity and hospitality of this community,” says Christian. “Connecting with these people, learning about their culture made the experience authentic. Cultural interchange brings us together as humans and enables conversation.”
Homestays like these are a great way to ensure your money as a tourist directly contributes to the local communities’ wellbeing and enables them to continue living a life in harmony with nature.
The Forest Ranger
Christian’s most eye-opening conversation took place with a forest ranger. The ranger protected the forest where Iman, the last rhino, was living at the time. He confessed to Christian that 10 years ago, he didn’t care about rhinos at all. He didn’t understand why it was important because he was never taught about the environment in school.
When visitors kept asking him about the rhino situation expressing their concern something clicked in him, he told Christian. He started looking into the topic and quickly realized how important conservation was not only for local biodiversity, but also the economy. Today, he is dedicating his life to protecting the very thing, he didn’t think was valuable a few years ago.
This example clearly shows the need for raising awareness and educating about the importance of nature for our wellbeing and livelihoods.
Christian’s Top Sustainable Development Tip
As we wrap up our talk with Christian, we ask him for his top tip when it comes to sustainable travel.
Connect with the local community when you travel. Be open-minded when you talk to them. This will create an opportunity to exchange views and learn from each other. Seek an open dialogue with community members to understand local circumstances and raise awareness in issues you care about. It’s your responsibility as a global citizen.
To find out more about our volunteer programs supporting the UN SDGs, click here.